Concert grand piano on the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall (picture source The Guardian)

This post was prompted by this question from a friend: “How has reviewing piano concerts influenced your own playing?”.

In the 18 months I’ve been reviewing for Bachtrack, I’ve been to many excellent solo piano and chamber recitals, given by top international artists, and lesser-known, or up-and-coming artists too, at venues large and small. Reviewing has been a way of indulging my passion for piano music, while also being allowed to write about it, and, I hope, share my passion with others. When I select concerts to review, I tend to make choices largely based on repertoire rather than performer, though this year I have made one or two deliberate choices to hear certain performers, out of curiosity, namely Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor. I also wanted to hear again Marc-André Hamelin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and for the first time, Noriko Ogawa.

I often urge my students to go to concerts for “inspiration” (sadly, few of them take up my suggestion). There is something very special about live music, and seeing and hearing a professional musician at work can be illuminating and inspiring – and sometimes just jaw-droppingly extraordinary (in the case of Hamelin). You don’t experience that same excitement from hearing music, however expertly played, on disc, as you do in the concert hall. You can listen to a disc any number of times, but in the concert hall, it’s an entirely unique experience – for performer and audience. I’ve heard a couple of pianists in the same repertoire at different concerts, and after a pause of several years, and have been surprised, and excited, at the changes in the music. Not significant changes of interpretation, but small adjustments – a little more rubato here, some subtle shading or tenuto there – which shine a new light on the works or highlight different aspects. As a performer, it is these flashes of illumination and insight that make performing such an interesting and exciting experience, aside from the cultural gift of sharing music with others.

I couldn’t really claim that any particular concert or performer has directly informed my playing, but occasionally I’ve considered some of my repertoire in a new way after hearing it in concert. One is unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall: you’re often too far away from the stage to see details, but listening attentively is helpful, particularly for pedalling. It’s amazing how many pro pianists don’t seem to know how to pedal properly, or who use the pedal as some kind of on-off switch to hide mistakes or inconsistencies of technique. I’ve been doing a lot of work on refining my pedal technique this year, specifically with regard to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 (which requires very minimal pedal), so I have a heightened sensitivity about sloppy or inconsistent pedalling! Peter Donohoe, in his early spring concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, gave a fantastic demonstration of how to pedal Debussy effectively in his performance of Estampes (read my review here). It was an enlightening and expert performance.

Similarly, hearing Noriko Ogawa play Toru Takemitsu’s evocative Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece dedicated to Olivier Messiaen, and full of Messiaenic echoes in its colourful tonalities and ‘flashes’, was very illuminating. I had just started looking at the piece when I went to hear Noriko in a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore featuring this piece and Debussy’s Études. To hear the work performed live by one of the composer’s compatriots, who clearly has a profound understanding of his work, was special enough, but the beauty and refinement of Noriko’s playing made this a truly spectacular five minutes of music for me. I went home to practise the piece with an excitement and enthusiasm, which has remained every time I open the score or indeed think about the work.

A really vibrant or emotionally powerful performance of a piece I am working on will often send me home to study the score in detail away from the piano, or may encourage me to try something new or different. I’ve stopped trying to copy what the pros do – the frustrated concert pianist within has long since been put to bed, and I now concentrate on trying to bring my own interpretation to the music – but a well-executed performance of some of my repertoire may force me to raise my game, always a good thing, especially when one has been working on the same repertoire for a long time.

I think the best aspect of reviewing is the exposure to a such great variety of music, and this is probably the most significant influence on my own playing. My reporter’s notebook, and the black Moleskine notebook I keep by the piano for practising notes, are full of lists of repertoire I’ve heard in concert and mean to learn one day. Here’s a small sample, in no particular order, with a note of where I heard the work:

Liszt – Bénediction de Dieu dans la solitude (Proms 2011, Marc-André Hamelin)

Liszt – Legende: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots (Proms 2011 – Marc-André Hamelin)

Debussy – Les soirs illumine de l’ardeur du charbon (Proms 2012 – Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

Copland – Muted & Sensuous from Four Piano Blues (Peter Jablonski, QEH 2012)

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in a minor BWV 543 (Khatia Buniatishvili, Wigmore 2011)

Bartok – Dirges, no. 4 Andante Assai (Aimard, QEH 2011)

Messiaen – any of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Aimard, QEH 2011)

At his spring concert at QEH, Leif Ove Andsnes played one of Rachmaninov’s opus 33 Études-Tableaux for an encore (C major) and in an instant I was hooked (those slavic open fifths!). Sadly, I had some difficulties with tension in my left arm when I attempted to play this one, so I switched to the g minor. I am also learning the E flat Etude-Tableau from the same opus. Together, these pieces form the close of my LTCL programme. Thank you, Leif!

A post on Gretchens Pianos inspired this one!

My grandfather played the piano, mostly Methodist hymns and his favourite bits of Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. I suppose I was always aware of it and probably messed about on his piano, an Edwardian upright, which was on the left as you went into the front room (kept for Sundays and special occasions) when we went to visit. The piano stool was full of interesting song sheets and hymnals, friable and speckled with age, with that special antique smell, like the musty reminiscence of an old church….. My younger uncle also played the piano, passably well, while my eldest uncle was a fine amateur violinist. There was often music in my grandparents’ house, live and on the ‘gramophone’ (as it was called).

I don’t recall actually asking if I could learn the piano; rather, my parents acquired an old Challen upright for me when I was about 5. It had lived in a greenhouse for 2 years and needed a lot of restoration. It was overhauled, refelted, and given lots of TLC, and was gradually brought up to concert pitch by the tuner to become a much-loved and regularly-played instrument. It saw me through to Grade 8, but when I left home, I stopped playing seriously for some years, and when my parents divorced, my father sold the piano because I did not have room for it in my flat.

My first teacher, Mrs Scott, in Sutton Coldfield, seemed ancient. She had a grand piano in the front room of her house and during the lesson, her husband would silently bring her a cup of tea, served in a bone china cup and saucer. She always wore mauve or pink, and smelt faintly of lavender. I took my exams at the Birmingham School of Music, one exam a year, a veritable treadmill. When we moved to Hertfordshire, I took lessons with Suzette Murdoch, who taught me to love the intricacies of Bach and the passion and humour of Beethoven. She had an Old English Sheepdog and a spaniel, who would lie across my feet as I sat at her Steinway. My music teacher at school was also very influential. He was endlessly enthusiastic and inspirational, and I often find myself repeating things he said when I am teaching (“pretend you’re a trumpet!”). Twenty-five years since leaving school, I started having lessons again, an experience which I find endlessly absorbing, interesting and fulfilling. The most satisfying part is seeing how quickly I have progressed from post-Grade 8 repertoire to “proper” advanced repertoire – Chopin Etudes, a Ballade, Schubert’s last sonata…. Three years ago, I didn’t think I would be playing Liszt, but now I no longer look at music and think “there’s no way I can play that!”.

My current piano is a Yamaha, purchased four years ago, and chosen for quality and price. Of course, I dream of owning a grand, when space and budget permit, but in the meantime, I play my teacher’s antique Bluthner regularly, and a friend’s Steinway B, which I find as quirky as driving my old Porsche. Last summer, while on holiday in southern Ireland, I had the good fortune to play a rather special Bluthner which lives at Russborough, a beautiful 18th century stately home in County Wicklow. The piano belonged to Sir Alfred Beit, who, with his wife, was a great society host, and a fine amateur pianist. It was wonderful to see Sir Alf’s music in the rack next to the piano: the same Peters edition of Schubert’s Impromptus I had when I was in my teens, and a book of Czerny studies. Next to the Bluthner is an older Steinway, which was played by Paderewski when he visited Russborough.

Russborough, County Wicklow

I am fascinated by the connection pianists, in particular, seem to have to their instruments, and also the stories which illustrious instruments can tell us, in their own way. In a novel (as yet unpublished!) I wrote some years ago, about a young man poised on the cusp of a fantastic career as a concert pianist, before the Great War cruelly intervenes, the various pianos he plays have great significance for him – his teacher’s Broadwood, his mother’s Pleyel, his patron’s grandiose Steinway, a rickety upright in the officers’ mess – and the music he plays on each has very special and symbolic resonances (Beethoven, Scriabin, Debussy, Schubert, Rachmaninov). We grow very attached to our instruments, and we are often very protective of them. Although I teach, and am happy to do so, I do get upset when children treat my piano badly. Luckily, this does not happen that often – and when it does, I am quick to point out that such treatment will not do the instrument any good!

The loneliness of the pianist also interests me. While other musicians, be they soloists, ensembles or orchestras, sit largely facing the audience, the pianist does not, and this immediately changes the dynamic between performer and audience. Some people have suggested that I chose the piano because I am an only child and that I like being on my own. It’s true that I am content in my own company, and am happy to spend hours alone with my piano, but I don’t buy into the only child theory. Discussing this with fellow students on the piano course in April, we all agreed that one of the chief attractions of being a pianist, aside from the vast and wonderful repertoire, is the solitariness of the role.

I used to play the clarinet as well, an instrument which I love to listen to, which allowed me to join an orchestra and wind ensemble. However, I did not choose to learn it (I wanted to play the flute), and I always felt overshadowed by my father, who was a talented amateur clarinettist. Fortunately, I could accompany him on the piano, as I grew more proficient, and one of our favourite pieces was the Brahms E flat Clarinet Sonata. My father is now learning the piano, though he refuses to take any advice whatsoever from me!

When I was at school, I played the harpsichord, often being called upon to play continuo with the chamber orchestra. It was, by turns, a fascinating and frustrating experience, as it is not an easy instrument to master, and the school harpsichord (a modern instrument made from a kit) was beset with problems and regularly disappeared for maintenance.

My piano tuner keeps urging me to visit the Chappell showroom in central London to “try the Bosendorfers”, but, as I said to him, I know if I try one I will want one! And I’d love to play a Fazioli. And when I had a backstage tour of the Wigmore Hall some years ago, it was hard to resist sitting down at the Steinway on the hallowed stage there, and rattling through a drop of Schubert…..

How did you choose your instrument? What’s your story? Please feel free to reply!